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By Peter Muldavin
Establishing the Need to Prove Past Weather Conditions.
Picture the following situation. An insurance carrier has insured the defendant in a slip and fall case in which the Plaintiff claims to have fallen on an icy sidewalk. Significant personal injury damages are sought by the Plaintiff. The insured’s defense is that the icy conditions had developed just prior to the accident and that he had no time to clear the sidewalk. if this situation could be scientifically documented and proven, the carrier would have limited or no liability for the damages sought by the Plaintiff.
The carrier’s claims manager asks the investigator to get documentation of the weather conditions which can be used as evidence in support of this Act of God defense. This article will explore the best means for the investigator to fulfill his assignment, in a way that will best help the case.
How to Go About Getting Past Weather Reports
As an insurance fraud investigator, it is very helpful to know sources of such documentation. The National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) in Asheville, North Carolina, is where most official National Weather Service (NWS) observations are archived. Insurance companies may obtain these records in one of two ways, either direct or via the services of a consulting meteorologist. The latter choice comes with a trained interpretation of the weather information.
Inside the Data
Official weather reports which are obtained by a non-meteorologist, are usually observations taken at an official NWS observation station, usually at an airport. Typically, what is provided by the NCDC is the monthly Local Climatological Data (LCD) from the airport nearest to the site of the accident. This publication includes a chart of daily summaries of basic weather readings, supplemented, in most cases, by 3-hour detailed readings and hourly precipitation data for the month. Additionally, records may be included which chart hourly observations, often in handwritten meteorological codes. And even though a decoder sheet is usually included, figuring out these arcane readings can be especially challenging to the lay person. The problem is, it’s hard enough to make anything out of these reports, let alone decide if they are valid for an accident that happened, say 15 or 20 miles from the airport.
If the loss location is at some distance from the weather station, it is probably that the temperatures, precipitation, pattern, wind speeds, ground conditions, and so forth, will be different than what is shown in the captured weather report. Additionally, elevation, topographical differences and proximity to the ocean or another large body of water can be influencing factors. On a case that goes to trial, the defense can have a field day challenging a weather defense that is not supported by expert testimony. Enter the forensic meteorologist!
When the Decision to Hire a Weather Expert Becomes Easy.
Here is where the hiring of a consulting meteorologist becomes invaluable. A qualified weather expert will not rely on just the LCDs. He will get detailed hourly surface observations as well as dozens of additional weather products (upper air balloon soundings, surface weather maps, Doppler radar charts, satellite photos, astronomical data, and so forth, available from the NCDC and other government agencies such as individual state climatological offices, flood control districts, air quality agencies and the Army Corps of Engineers, to name just a few. Thousands of small towns and cities and government agencies take weather readings (cooperative observations) which help fill in geographical gaps. Moreover, since most of the data is archived in a coded format, and since most accidents do not happen right where the weather measuring instruments are placed, an expert meteorologist is required, in most cases to decode and interpolate the data. He can then try to determine what the weather conditions were at the scene of the accident based on observations taken at various surrounding areas. An expert opinion can then be rendered to a reasonable degree of meteorological certainty as to what the weather and ground conditions were.
Choosing the Best Expert
Obviously, any weather expert must be qualified as such, usually by virtue of a college degree in meteorology or atmospheric science. The American Meteorological Society in Boston, Massachusetts, maintains an extensive listing of meteorologists. To help in making a decision, consider the following suggestions: Choose a company that 1) Has been around for at least a few years. 2) has several full time meteorologists on staff 3) Specializes in forensic meteorology.
Well known radio or TV personalities can be tempting, but consideration should be paid to the fact that any forensic work they do is only moonlighting for them. This limits their availability for follow up testimony and/or reports. Additionally, a one-man-show may not be able or willing to offer the full range of services that are needed. These include: 1) Official government certified NWS weather records. 2) Phone consultations. 3). Plain language narrative reports. 4). Depositions (in court or telephone conference). 5) Expert testimony. 6). Accident site visits. 7). Astronomical data (time of sunset, civil twilight, etc.) 8). Marine data (wave heights, tides, etc.)
What Good is a Weather Expert to a Firm That Does Not Handle Personal injury?
While slip and fall cases are an obvious scenario in which a weather expert may be needed, there are many more types of cases where weather may be a factor. 1. Motor vehicle accidents. 2. Airplane crashes. 3. Property damage (hail, lightning, floods, etc.) 4. Constriction delays and defects. 5. Recreational boating accidents. 6. Shipping cargo losses. 7. Product liability. 8. Crop damage 9. Historical studies (one in 100 year storm, Acts of God, etc.) 10. Air dispersion (toxic fumes, etc.) 11. Position of sun/moon at any given time and place. 12. Workmans’ Compensation claims (weather related injury claims) 13. Lightening rod verification. 14. Criminal investigations (witness credibility, establishing time of death).
What About the Internet?
The World Wide Web, as we all know, has proven to be the most significant advance in the dissemination of information since the invention of the printing press and later, radio/TV/ When it comes to obtaining past weather records, the various databases available online (including the NCDC) are not being left behind. The problem facing an insurance fraud investigator in using the Internet is twofold. First, he may not be able to interpret the data properly. Second, he has no way of knowing if the information available on the Net is ALL of the relevant information on the case. With this in mind, even if the initial statistics are obtained from the Net, a weather expert will probably be needed for correct interpretation and courtroom credibility. In the long run, if the weather is important to a case, time and money are saved if a weather expert is brought into the process at the beginning.
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